Questioning the unacceptable poverty among us


Today is my first day as CEO of Turn2us, which is here to fight UK poverty.  It’s a privilege to serve it and the people for whom it exists - those facing or living in poverty.  It has talented teams of staff and trustees and great partnerships with other organisations who want to see people thrive.

As I’ve prepared for the role I’ve learnt about the staggering numbers of people being swept in to poverty - by one calculation there are now 14 million people living in poverty - and with 66 million in the UK, that’s over 20% of us.  That is people without a fridge or a cooker, who have to spend more money on take away food, single parents facing the challenges of juggling childcare with work, a huge number of people in work but unable to afford the daily cost of living, people trying to get to interviews but without the money to pay for the bus fare.  With so many people struggling to make ends meet it’s quite possible that you, reader, know what it is to face these impossible challenges and to feel the stress become overwhelming.

The figure struck me as so extraordinary that it left me wondering how we got to a position where we let so many of us live in poverty, unable to make the best use of talents and potential, unable to thrive.  I’ve been asking friends and family ‘What is our excuse for one in five of us living in poverty?’.  Answers tripped off tongues and laid blame for politicians, the recession, the internet’s impact on jobs - these are reasons, but I wonder how we justify it.  It seems unjustifiable that one of the richest countries in the world has such a high rate of economic exclusion at its heart.

In my career in the charity sector over the last couple of decades we’ve increasingly talked about the importance for people to have autonomy - to be independent.  But all of us are dependent and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I’m dependent on my friends, family, husband; I’ve been dependent on my employer to pay for my sick leave; I’ve been dependent on staff in the NHS to care for me when I’ve been ill and to get dental care - and after I left college when I couldn’t find a job, I claimed income support and housing benefits.  When did we create a discourse that said it was OK to criticise people for being ‘welfare claimants’ or ‘on benefits’, as if there was something wrong with that.  We are an interdependent society and should be proud of that, not creating a world in which there is no dignity in getting support to get by.

And in the same way in which we need transparency to know how decisions are made about what care we can get on the NHS, we need the same to understand when we are denied support when we face economic fragility.  If we want to understand how to make communities and people more resilient in the face of uncertainty, we should listen to those of us who have lived expertise - we need it to improve the challenges that a fifth of us face.

I couldn’t be more excited to work for Turn2us and to work with my new colleagues who do such impactful work and alongside other organisations like the Trussell Trust or Macmillan. There’s a lot for us to do.